It's Time for IT to Do Empowerment Right

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Empowerment has become something of an unsexy term among business. It calls up images of scorecards and point allocations. Is there anything less sexy than talking about preferential procurement strategies?

McKinsey predicts that rising connectivity will empower as many as three billion consumers globally and have an enormous positive impact on emerging markets, fuelling financial inclusion and incredible opportunities for business. Accenture meanwhile has found that entrepreneurship is closely linked with innovation and economic growth – with 70% of entrepreneurs who had started businesses in the last 12 months already contemplating overseas expansion.

The eureka moment

For proof of the power of digital entrepreneurship, you need look no further than Ludwick Marishane, SA’s youngest patent-holder and inventor of DryBath. Without support from large organisations – in Ludwick’s case, he benefitted from several entrepreneurship and innovation awards – the brilliant idea for a waterless bath might have never been realised.

What’s special about Ludwick’s story is that he came up with the idea for DryBath from a need that someone in a more privileged position might not have even been aware of. There are 2.5-billion people in the world without access to running water, and growing up in rural Limpopo allowed Ludwick to recognise a massive gap in the market. After DryBath’s success, he’s gone onto create his own advisory company aimed at helping corporates set up innovation initiatives. As a result, he’s growing his own patch of the digital entrepreneurship ecosystem.

That’s the beauty of digital entrepreneurship. It doesn’t just change individual lives, it breeds bold new ideas, solves real problems, and amplifies itself as the empowered go on to empower others. From a business perspective, it leads to disruptive products and services, and can turn entire industries upside down.

With stories like these available, why do we as South Africans always seem to default to points on a page when we think about empowerment? Digital entrepreneurship is one of the most potent tools we have, and we need to think about how we enable it among our customers, employees, partners, and society as a whole.

Bridging the gap

The good news is that South Africa is well on its way to becoming an entrepreneurial powerhouse. A recent report by the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute places South Africa as second-most entrepreneurial on the continent, behind only Botswana. The report goes on to say that SA provides better conditions for entrepreneurship than Brazil, Russia and China.

On the flipside of the coin is the fact that South Africa has one of the highest rates of small business failure in the world – at 75%. The ideas are clearly there but they can’t seem to cross over the execution gap. And in that gap lies an enormous opportunity for businesses and entrepreneurs alike to work together in the innovation economy.

Here’s where CIOs and CTOs have real potential to make a difference. Not only are the majority of South African entrepreneurs starting business in the IT sector, there’s also the inescapable reality that every new business will need to be a digital one to succeed. Siloed CSI or transformation programmes simply aren’t equipped to give entrepreneurs the tools they need to succeed in the digital economy.

The examples of this playing out in the market are numerous: Barclays is one of many multinationals with its own fintech-focused incubator programme, while technology accelerators like mLab and 88mph are well-frequented by businesses in search of talent and ideas.

The business case for digital entrepreneurship

Ever tried coming up with a game-changing idea from inside a big corporate? Change is hard enough in a vacuum, never mind in a place with inflexible processes, systems and multitudes of layers and shareholders to deal with.

Digital entrepreneurship efforts are the perfect way to bring outside-in disruption to a large organisation. Sure, you may not have the internal resources to devote to finding new solutions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t invest in start-ups with potentially disruptive ideas or accelerators that can provide you with a steady stream of talent.

The benefits clearly go both ways, with start-ups getting access to large markets and skilled development. But this means you need to approach digital entrepreneurship initiatives just as you would any important business partnership – with an eye towards strategy. Here are the main things to consider before you start:

  • Think outside the (money)box: As important as funding is, digital entrepreneurship is not just about throwing money at any decent-looking start-up. Rather it’s about thinking big and finding new ways to offer value. Expand your thinking beyond venture capital and consider incubators, skills development platforms, awards, hackathons and innovation hubs.
  • Ask the right questions: Consider how your business model works and what the gaps are in your supply chain or product development cycle, and how you can use empowerment strategies to fill them. Then, once you’ve selected the right vehicle, ask yourself how you can fast-track it to be able to provide value.
  • Offer what you’re good at: One obvious way for businesses to add value is by allowing small businesses access to key service offerings. Telkom FutureMakers and Microsoft BizSpark are good examples, providing SMEs with access to cloud and connectivity services. Or develop training initiatives that will seed the skills your business requires in young people, as in the case of the MTN Digital Entrepreneur Masterclass.

The path to the future

Still think empowerment is about points and procurement? To borrow from JFK, “Ask not what digital entrepreneurship can do for you, but what you can do for digital entrepreneurship.” Next time you run into your transformation manager in the hallway, perhaps it’s time to take him or her out for a long coffee.

What are you doing to enable an ecosystem of digital entrepreneurship? What programmes do you have in place and what have the results been like?

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